Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

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No more tears: Michael Sam and the camera’s fetish for queer crying

It’s important to cry. When like me, you’re into men, that’s one of the first things you learn. Even at twelve, when not being straight first clicked, it never bothered me, but certainly it bothered other people, and the gay films teenage me streamed late at night always had similar endings, weeping heroes gaining acceptance. Versions of the scene are everywhere, from news reports of damp-eyed brideless grooms to awards speeches, soap storylines and prime drama. Liberal media, while still not keen on our other fluids, loves queer tears.

May saw more of these than its fair share. Within days of Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision win, the gay American footballer Michael Sam was signed by the St. Louis Rams. Footage of the moment he found out, which quickly spread online, could have been scripted to slow motion piano chords by Glee’s producers. Between Sam’s sobs and centre-stage lip lock with his partner, the clip supplied a perfect progressive moment. Straight athletes do of course cry regularly at good news – then again, their tears aren’t bundled in with social change the way his were or cast as overtures to ‘kiss[es] that made history’. If Sam’s weren’t definitively gay, that’s how they were framed.

If queer people have an image, we’ve been painted in a narrow colour palette, portraits of moist helplessness lining wall after wall; those of us who chose rage instead are nowhere to be seen. This isn’t about whether Sam was wrong to cry, or any individual choice – it’s about politics, power and which stories we tell. Fixating on the personal over the landscape of brutality beyond is part of the problem. The most tedious comments on the video, in fact, asked how the player had helped or set back equality by kissing his boyfriend, ‘flaunting’ their relationship or (God forbid) dating someone shorter than him.

Columnist Mark Joseph Stern argues that what the rights agenda needs is more queer PDA. It’s a clichéd but sound argument for homophobia’s survival that when we kiss in public, if we do, we glance round first. At the same time, same-sex lovers often are less lovey-dovey, and failing to kiss ostentatiously’s not always about fear. Putting partnerships on show – through dramatic proposals, wedding rituals, partner dances, rings – is one part of enforced monogamy whose victims have usually been straight couples, and since friendship tends to be within one’s gender, its boundary in gay relationships with eros can be blurred. I prefer them, as plenty do, partly because they don’t come loaded with coupledom’s affectations, and being told to kiss more visibly feels unwelcome.

But even arguing this is frustrating. Whether or not I ought to kiss my partners publicly is not the discussion we should hold – no more than what Michael Sam was doing by kissing his, or how his tears made history. Thinking on the same lines as Stern, Facebook users made gay kisses their profile photos, a move he called ‘a confrontational, in-your-face exhibition’. There’s nothing confrontational about giving mass media what it wants, in this case by feeding its fetish for what queer faces do. Liberals flinch when homophobes reduce gay men to anal sex or lesbians to vulvae, ignoring the vastness of what being queer means. Is reducing our politics to puckered lips and watery eyes any different?

Bulletins could have talked about the young men funnelled toward sport who aren’t white enough for U.S. classrooms or wealthy enough without sports scholarships for college; the adults whose lifelong security hinges on being hired to play. They could have talked about the culture of machismo policing entry to those sports (football especially) whose homophobia shuts doors for queer youth – how it’s small wonder it took a gay professional like Sam so long to break through it. They could have talked about that homophobia’s reach into school locker rooms around the world, or the violence gym classes direct at male bodies seen to lack butch prowess. Once again they chose portrait over landscape, zooming in on a single gay man’s tears to broadcast them without context.

Those of us who won’t weep on cue know context to be threatening. Reels of queer kissing and crying on TV, Facebook and HuffPost tell progressive straight people their acceptance is the solution – that if they well up like the faces on their screens, they’re doing their bit to rescue us. The bigger picture reveals a less comfortable tale, where media is not neutral, structural aggression exists and the same well-meaning straights are part of it – in their jobs, schools, families, churches and social institutions, as well as in their very thirst to rescue us via figures like Sam. One day, when celluloid sees fit to challenge them, perhaps that story will be told. The day it is will be the day they cry for us, and nothing else makes the airwaves.

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Intern full-time at the Sunday Assembly – for £20 a week

In January, I wrote an article at AlterNet advising secular groups on how to be less economically exclusive: how to remain accessible to hard-up nonbelievers, improve outreach and stop godlessness being a movement for the wealthy. The same week, Sanderson Jones – cofounder and newly appointed CEO of the Sunday Assembly – asked me to meet with him and offer the SA advice. I did, although he spoke (somewhat defensively) at least as much as he listened to me.

In the article, I wrote:

Pay your interns – money.

If I could stamp one practice out in atheism, unpaid internships would be it.

[These] positions are prestigious. They help enormously when seeking an activist career. Shutting people out who can’t work for nothing, or who might even lose welfare checks if they do, keeps atheism dominated by the rich. And labour has value. Not paying for it is theft.

You wouldn’t accept pay in “experience,” so don’t expect your interns to. And don’t just pay a stipend to subsist on. Pay the minimum wage where you are; if you possibly can, a living wage. If you can’t at present, fundraise. If you’re on a high-up’s pay, take a cut – that sounds like ethical leadership to me. If you really, really can’t afford paid interns, don’t take on unpaid ones. Better you don’t help anybody up the ladder than that you only help the rich.

You’d think a group that cared about this as much as Jones claimed the SA did would get the message – it was, after all, the message most stressed in the piece that made him contact me.

Today, he posted on the organisation’s site:

We are very pleased to announce the Sunday Assembly Community Building Summer Programme. We are offering 10 volunteer internships for a six week programme, to help people all over the world start their own Assemblies.

In short, we’re after fun and friendly people that want to get experience volunteering for a grassroots community organisation that’s changing the world. In return you’ll get a super fun environment, training in various aspects of the organisation, and the chance make a real difference to the expansion of Sunday Assembly globally.

Now, we can only offer lunch money (and lots of appreciation) for this, because we have very little money ourselves. However, what we do have is some amazing volunteers and, with their help, we are putting together 6 half day training sessions, so that you not only get experience building community but you also learn cutting edge grassroots and leadership skills from amazing people.

Purpose of the Community Organiser

You’ll be acting as guides to organisers of new assemblies that are setting up around the world. Community Organisers will help support new Assemblies to put together a local organising team and get things up and running, as well as being a friendly point of contact to help them troubleshoot problems as they arise.

By the end of your internship you will have helped create new communities across the world.

Projects May Include

  • Making contact with our organising teams and leaders from around the world

  • Being their ‘Guide’ through the process of starting up a new local Sunday Assembly

  • Making sure new Assemblies have all the documents and toolkits they need to get going

  • Responding to queries as and when they arise (during office hours)

  • Finding other potential organisers in the local areas you’re working with to help form a local organising team

Commitment

6 weeks (ideally full time) from the week commencing Tuesday 28th May (some flexibility on start date if still finishing exams etc).

Hours by agreement between 10-6pm Monday to Friday at our offices in Central London (near to Tottenham Court Road)

Support and Benefits

  • Expenses covered up to £20 a week

  • Weekly half day training workshops on different elements of our organisation from a sparkly array of speakers (see above)

  • The chance to make a real difference to the expansion of an exciting, young, international grassroots organisation

  • A glowing reference upon successful completion of the programme

  • The warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you’re helping to change the world for the better

What to do next

If you’re interested in coming on board for the summer, drop us a line ASAP and by Wed 21st May at the latest, at [email protected] telling us the following (in 250 words or less) :-

  • why you think Sunday Assembly is great

  • why you are great

  • and finally how you think your greatness can make Sunday Assembly even more great

Please pop “I want to make Sunday Assembly even more great” in the subject line of your email so we can find your email quickly. We can’t wait to meet you.

According to Simon Clare, who recently left the Brighton SA over tensions with the London leadership, Jones ‘has already secured £50,000 worth of grants and donations, which will in part pay for his future wages.’ For your reference, six weeks of National Minimum Wage for ten interns working 40 hours a week – unless my Google’s maths is wrong – is £15,144. Even counting expenses payments as remuneration (rather than something extra), £20 weekly is fifty pence per hour.

These sound to me very much like employment-level positions, but in any case, filling them with full-time unpaid workers means no one can do them who can’t afford six weeks with no income in central London. If there’s one surefire way to make certain your organisation remains the preserve of the privileged for years to come, this is it. I’m skeptical of how much the SA really cares about this if they’re ignoring it – especially when it was one of the first things they heard from me.

Sanderson, colour me unimpressed.

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How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000

At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. ‘While you were here,’ he said once papers were filled out, ‘you used BitTorrent?’

I had, I said, like almost all my friends. Filesharing was in my eyes like speeding on the motorway, an illegality most practised and few cared about. ‘We all do it’, the Barcelonian said, who seemed to have come reluctantly.

The scientist produced a further wad of fine-print forms. ‘We got sued’, he told me, ‘by the music industry.’

* * *

Above is an extract from my piece today at Index on Censorship. Read the rest there.

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Making atheism less middle class: Alex Gabriel speaking in London, March 23

Doubts costs nothing; voicing them can cost a lot. A piece I wrote for AlterNet last month, on the need for an economically inclusive secular scene, was well received. Readers from half a dozen groups said they’d implement ideas there, the Sunday Assembly asked my advice on reaching poorer congregants, and Conway Hall Ethical Society asked me to give a talk.

Conway Hall, beside boasting one of London’s most pleasant libraries, is the unspiritual home of British freethought; most major godless groups in the UK can be traced there, and the management is thought to be the world’s oldest surviving Ethical Society. Historically, it’s been a meeting spot for leftists, and the nineteenth century secularist movement it survives was frequently socialist itself. Harriet Law, one of its figureheads and the original Skepchick, was a farmer’s daughter and close colleague of Karl Marx; another, Edward Aveling, married his daughter and helped translate Das Kapital. Atheists nowadays think too little about class – there’s precedent.

My talk, ‘Godless and broke: making secular groups less middle class’, takes place on Sunday 23 March as a morning lecture, starting at 11am. To quote the blurb, ‘Secularists are broadening their image, but their cause remains seen, not totally unfairly, as middle class. We have to take action to reach hard up atheists and skeptics, or risk being a community for the well off.’ I’ll be discussing how.

Booking is online at £5 a head, unless you’re unwaged, a student or hard up, in which case it’s whatever sum you choose. Thanks to Sid Rodrigues at Conway Hall for introducing this – it’s great to see these things put into use – and for inviting me. See you there!

10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion

When I wrote on this blog that I was homeless once, response was good – including, to my surprise, from colleagues with affluent backgrounds. What’s not surprising is how many of my colleagues’ backgrounds were affluent. The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance.

Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. A friend sought suggestions last week about how to be more economically inclusive. Here are the ones I made:

1. Remember poor people – some of them are atheists.
2. If your group’s a church alternative… be an alternative.
3. Don’t just meet at the ‘nice’ end of town.
4. Don’t charge prohibitive entry fees.
5. Provide childcare, free of charge.
6. Don’t hold graphic design contests.
7. Don’t just hire graduates.
8. Pay your speakers – well.
9. Pay your interns – money.
10. Remember ‘students’ and ‘young people’ aren’t synonyms.

Read more at Alternet.

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about

Say this city has ten million souls
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes

* * *

A letter in a too-large envelope came five years ago this week. The paper had shifted in the excess space so the plastic window meant for the address showed its initial lines of text instead. I am pleased on behalf of Wadham College, it began, to offer you a place. Oxford’s 2013 interviewees sit, as I write, in hope of such a letter.

Legends abound about the Oxbridge interview, referred to always with a definite article as in ‘the Eucharist’ – an arcane, unalterable rite shrouded in mystery. Oxford and Cambridge hopefuls have stories thrust on them of rugby balls, bananas and trick questions, and access workers’ first task (I was one once) is to dispel these myths. Interviews in reality amount most of the time to cordial, relaxed if mentally rigorous exchanges – nothing worse. Oxford’s bizarrenesses are many, but kick in for the most part only once successful candidates take up their spots. You might imagine by my fourth year there, I’d have acclimatised, but you’d be wrong: few ever wholly do. Memories of finals, now eight months ago, are among my most surreal.

Oxford’s exam dress – gown, mortarboard and suit or skirt-and-jumper – looks centuries out of date because it is. Amendments made to rules in 2012 eliminated reference to gender, making my year the first whose men could wear ordinary black ties rather than ivory bows, an aesthetic and practical step up that nonetheless resembled funeral garb. (Appropriate, I felt, for long dead academic prospects’ burial.) Tradition, though I’d no time for it, dictates white carnations be worn on top for first exams, pink ones thereafter and red for the final one, a colour scheme it’s always seemed to me suggests loss of virginity. Finalists in most subjects file thus dressed into Examination Schools – venue, incidentally, of next year’s World Humanist Congress – to sit exams between ornate wood-panelled walls, observed by ancient portraits, gazing periodically up at giant clocks that may or may not be as Victorian as they appear. The whole ritual feels close to religious; I can tell you, since he once told me, that Richard Dawkins has nightmares about it.

Being, unlike him, an academic slacker, I never felt much strain during my finals. I didn’t expect a very good degree, nor feel in need of one. (Upper second, as it turned out, English and Modern Languages.) One memory persists, though. Returning to college down Queen’s Lane from a twentieth century English paper (I managed a first there), three stocky, plum-voiced undergrads fell boorishly about ahead of me, red carnations near-invisible through baked beans, flour and confetti. ‘Trashing’, as it’s known, is another Oxford custom, inflicted on students finishing exams. I’m thankful I escaped it. Stumbling on down the road, the boy on the right shook vigorously and then uncorked a bottle of champagne, dousing the middle one in the resulting spray of foam. His accomplice on the left, still guffawing, restrained their target as he tried to flee, and the boy with the bottle upturned it over him, releasing every drop till none remained.

More than half Oxford’s students are state-schooled. Few attended England’s ancient public schools, as alarmingly many did in Britain’s cabinet, and it’s lazy to equate the two: Oxford is no costlier than any major university, and the ten percent of students with parents on less than £16,000 a year pay fees of three thousand instead of nine. It’s true though that an air of privilege pervades. Trashing is harmless fun for students in historically male garb well off enough to dry-clean it. It wouldn’t have been for me. My stomach turns recalling that champagne, but only since it spoke to the whole practice’s louche insensitivity. I saw this often at Oxford – in colleagues who wore designer clothes to bed and insisted a time passed when their parents ‘only’ made £250,000 a year; in those who casually forked hundreds out to replace a blemished croquet set; in the drunken braying outside pubs of boys in tailcoats who thought they owned the place. (Perhaps they did.)

The day I arrived, hauling luggage from a taxi to my first year room, a woman in her fifties with a warm Oxfordshire accent greeted me whose name was June, and whose role my fresher’s pack had told me was to clean my room, make the bed and change the sheets. Her job description, like the figure she earned, should have been longer: when it turned out I’d no duvet of my own, June snuck me a college owned one reserved for conference guests; when I spent my first week bedridden with swine flu, she brought food to my door; when I failed to lock it, she chided me good-naturedly. A surrogate mum a hundred miles from home, I loved June as I’ve read England’s public schoolboys love their domestic matrons – but flinched inwardly at how clearly this seemed the basis of her role. Early on, she referred in passing to wealthy parents funding my degree – the truth, I told her immediately, was that I belonged to that poorest tenth of students, reliant on a student loan and grants. A bedmaker who cleaned my floor felt as embarrassingly alien as meals served in the college hall by staff in black bow ties. (Their supervisor held the telling title of Head Butler.) When possible, I ducked these to eat privately or in the cafeteria.

My appetite – in one sitting, I can polish off whole cakes or quiches – was a subject of fun now and again in my tutorial group. They discovered it as time went on, but never why. I’m able to do this for the same reason I’m able, more or less, to function normally for two or three days without food: I know how it feels to be hungry for years.

It wouldn’t be true to say my mother and I starved at any point, but nor were cupboards ever adequately full. The two of us were homeless before I turned a year old; fleeing her then-husband, a man who broke her heart and numerous other parts of both of us, it took officials the best of two years to house us properly. The benefits on which we spent the next few years allowed, after expenses, a household budget of £70 a week or so, meaning that on my mum’s trips to the shops, counting the pennies wasn’t a metaphor. From the staples of our diet, bread, cheese, pasta and potatoes, she fashioned an uncanny range of meals, many of them my comfort foods today, but supply was limited. I still recall her voice, frustration masking despair, telling me when circumstances bit that there was ‘no food in the house’. Free school lunches, such as they were in the nineties, meant I rarely went without for longer than 24 hours, but if it was a weekend when this happened and no neighbours, church members or friends were forthcoming with help, nothing could be done about it. If I overeat at times, it’s because the concept still feels new.

Mum was 42 when she had me, but lived for the following years as students are imagined to. Our furniture, food itself if still vacuum-packed, came out of skips. Even the fridge in which the latter sat, she got by swapping the inferior original with another single mum’s named Shirley; the washing machine next to it, her first husband bought us. Almost all my clothes were second hand, donated by parents from church or the school gates, though always in good nick. It’s hard to get across just how poor we were, except that it shows in subtler ways too. Some nights, Mum taught keep fit at the local primary school, unpaid monetarily (a stipulation of her benefits) but provided in exchange with household goods – among them, a stereo. CDs from Woolworths being an unthinkable expense, I grew up with her cassette tape collection from the sixties, seventies and eighties, and my childhood’s songs as a consequence were by Dusty Springfield, the Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross. I was seven before I listened intently to contemporary music (a copy of Cher’s ‘Believe’ bought in a fit of decadence), and half way through my teens before I paid real attention. A gap of fifteen years or so in my musical knowledge, despite attempts to close it, has resulted.

The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out. I felt it at Oxford many times, though never more acutely than then – when a friend schooled for a six figure price complained a degree unfunded by his parents would saddle him with debts; when alumni of such places, 7 percent of Britain’s populace in total, mentioned their attendance as casually as if discussing where to buy socks; when I heard it said my feeling in response, called class hatred by those who’ve never had it, was the last accepted prejudice (a stupid phrase if ever there was one).

Pointing to class in any personal context is considered impolite. Praised by the Daily Mail last year, actor Tom Hiddleston – a product of the prep-school-Eton-Cambridge assembly line – complained the ‘artistic, political or intellectual has to be refracted through [a] prism of class consciousness’. Even a left wing, feminist friend opposed politically to fee-paying education shot me down for saying I wouldn’t date Eddie Redmayne of Les Mis fame since he went to boarding school with Hiddleston. Analogies in these areas are treacherous, but it’s tempting to think class, like gender or race, is something a friendly liberal politics encourages us not to see from day to day – dismissing and disregarding it as academic or off-limits, concerned as we might be in principle for that elusive thing, ‘equality’, in case the marginalised should make the privileged uncomfortable. Doing so prompts frequent accusations of bigotry, spreading the politics of envy and having a chip on one’s shoulder – canards, surely, that feminists and progressives like my alma mater’s ought to recognise.

If this post was unexpected, I know why. With my tweedy prose, unfashionable vowels (the ‘a’ amuses friends and enemies alike) and Latin postnominals, I’m something of a caricature – but ‘caricature’ is the word. Look closely for the giveaways: teeth affluent parents would have set in braces, hair only recently cut by professionals, voice without the real upper crust’s affected twang. I spot signs like these from a mile away: a partner of Hiddleston’s or Redmayne’s ilk, like the boys on Queen’s Lane who used champagne like water, would mean a barrage of emotional slaps in the face, a reminder in Wystan Auden’s words that they lived in mansions while I lived empty-stomached in a hole.

Try telling me I oughtn’t resent that. Try.

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